Steve Strongman can recall the exact moment he fell in love with the blues. He was 16 and had snuck in underage to Pop the Gator in Kitchener, and saw a harmonica battle between some of Canada's best blues artists.
He watched in awe. "It was like a light bulb went off," he said. Now, 24 years later, he has a new Juno Award for best blues album.
Strongman hopes to inspire a similar love of blues at the first Hamilton Blues and Roots Festival in Westdale this weekend. He'll headline a festival with about a dozen other artists, including Hamilton's Harrison Kennedy and Terra Lightfoot.
Hamilton Blues and Roots Festival
When: Saturday, June 1, starting at 10 a.m.
Where: King Street West, Westdale Village
Organized by Tim Potocic at Sonic Unyon and the Westdale Business Improvement Area (BIA), the festival will celebrate the city's connection to blues and roots music. Strongman is a part of that.
Hamilton has always been ripe ground for a blues festival, said Strongman, who won the Juno in April for his newest album, A Natural Fact. He tried to organize a festival for years before he realized he didn't have the time to pull it off.
"There is an absolutely amazing blues and roots community here," he said.
"(Hamilton is) a very honest community. The whole city is a hard-working city. Those things certainly run well with the blues."
The performance is a homecoming for Strongman, who performs across the country. It will also be a celebration of his Juno Award, which he won at a ceremony in Regina.
Up against stalwarts such as Colin James and Jack De Keyser, Strongman was pleasantly surprised by the win.
"That was a very big deal," he said. "It was a very amazing moment. I just sort of spoke from the heart when I accepted the award."
Strongman does a program called Blues in the Schools. He's appeared in dozens of schools across Canada preaching a love of music and a history of the blues, but he's never done it in Hamilton. He's making appearances at Dalewood and George R. Allan schools in Westdale this month to coincide with the festival.
The festival will be Saturday, June 1 on King Street West in the Westdale Village neighbourhood. It starts at 10 a.m. Strongman performs at 9 p.m. The retail core will be shut down for the event, which will also include a family movie night, beer garden and street performers.
Organizers hope for a crowd of about 5,000, said Marie-Louise Kallsen, facilitator of the Westdale BIA.
Previously, Westdale tried an Italian festival, but "it didn't quite fit the mode of who Westdale really was," she said. But the blues and roots festival does.
"Everybody is really excited."
That includes Strongman.
"I hope we can show people that the blues community here in Hamilton has a lot to be proud of," he said. "I hope this is the first of many great festivals to come."